'Stand By Me Doraemon' Becomes First Japanese Movie in China in Three Years

The release of the hugely popular Japanese cinema franchise reflects warming ties between the Asian superpowers after years of tension over territorial issues.

The manga movie Stand By Me Doraemon became the first Japanese movie to be shown in China in nearly three years as it opened in the world's second-largest film market on Thursday after chilly relations between the two Asian superpowers stopped any releases from Japan for a while.

Doraemon, a chubby cat robot with a magical pocket, is hugely popular in China, and the return of the iconic character is believed to reflect warming relations between the world's second- and third-biggest economies.

Since Sept. 2012, there have been heightened tensions between Japan and China over disputed islands in the East China Sea, as well as Tokyo’s perceived failure to properly atone for WWII atrocities.

On China's movie rating site Douban, the film got a rating of 8.6, which is the equivalent of 4.5 out of 5 stars. And netizens are filing positive posts about the character. "What a good memory of childhood. The fat blue cat has grown up with me!" wrote one.

The "cat-type robot" is Japan's most-watched cinematic franchise, overtaking Godzilla in 2013, and Doraemon has been a cultural phenomenon in Japan since the manga first appeared in 1969.

In September, a Chinese newspaper declared that Doraemon was a tool of "cultural invasion" and asked its readers whether the "chubby cat" should be boycotted.

The breakthrough appears to have come after a speech by Chinese president Xi Jinping at an event in Beijing this month, attended by some 3,000 Japanese accompanying Toshihiro Nikai, head of the general council of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party. In the speech, Xi stressed the importance of cultural exchanges between the two neighbors.

In November, Xi shook hands with Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe at the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation summit in Beijing, but the gesture was awkward and was not followed up with any improvement in ties.

The last Japanese movie to screen widely in China was an Ultraman film in July 2012.

Written by Fujiko F. Fujio (in reality a two-man team of artists), the Doraemon manga has sold more than 100 million copies in Japan, while the TV series became a hit around Asia, from Bangladesh to Hong Kong.

Stand by Me Doraemon, the 36th installment in the film franchise, was the first to use 3D CGI, a break from its previous hand-drawn tradition. It scored $70 million at the Japanese box office and another $16 million overseas, an unusually strong performance for a Japanese film.

That included a record-breaking $5 million in Hong Kong, where the cat is known as Ding Dong, the Cantonese name used in the local manga and TV series in the 1970s and 1980s. Stand by Me was the last Doraemon film voiced by Lam Po-chuen, who died in January and had given his voice to the robot cat since the TV series was first broadcast in the territory.

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